ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
Most of the time, when you see actor Jason Bateman on screen, he's playing the nice guy, or at least the nicest guy in the room. On the TV cult favorite "Arrested Development," Bateman is easily the heart of the show.
But given a chance to direct, he cast himself as a vulgar sociopath with a gift for coming up with the perfect put-down. The new movie is called "Bad Words," and it tells the story of a 40-year-old man elbowing his way onto the middle-school spelling-bee circuit - to the frustration of kids, parents and teachers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BAD WORDS")
BETH GRANT: (As judge) This spelling bee is meant for kids, not adults that couldn't even graduate the eighth grade.
JASON BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Oh, boy. Are we past the rules and into the insults now? Is it insult time?
GRANT: (As judge) Well, I'm sorry, but you're an adult.
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Because your potholder vest is about to take heavy fire.
GRANT: (As judge) Potholder?
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Ready for that?
CORNISH: The script for "Bad Words" was once on The Black List. That's a survey of Hollywood movie executives who list the best scripts they've read that haven't been made. We asked Bateman why no one had taken a chance on this one.
BATEMAN: The scripts that are on that list are great scripts, but there's something about them that keeps them from getting produced. And in this case, I think it was because it seemed very challenging to the reader to have anybody sort of like this guy, this central character that I ended up playing. He is a guy who's had his feelings hurt. He elects to try to fix his problem by crashing a kids' spelling bee. That has some relevance in his revenge scenario.
So it's - there is a deeper agenda, a more sophisticated agenda at play. His execution of that, though, is pretty sophomoric and so it makes it challenging to make him likeable because he misbehaves quite a bit, especially to young kids.
CORNISH: And I read that in working on this script with the screenwriter, you basically didn't want the character to be anymore likeable, right? Guy Trilby, this main character, you wanted him to be as unlikeable as possible and that it was your job as the actor to make him likeable. How does that work?
BATEMAN: Right. Well, I stole that from that - that was the formula on "Arrested Development." That was what the show's creator kind of said to all of us in the cast. And that's a stimulating challenge, to say nasty things but somehow behave in such a way, or capture a certain look in camera, that shows some vulnerability in the character or some ignorance, as opposed to hatred or - one of my favorite shows, growing up, was "All in the Family." And Carroll O'Connor played Archie Bunker in a way that, you know, he said all these politically incorrect things, but he always seemed to earn it somehow with some sort of endearing look of ignorance or stupidity - or whatever it was. He got away with it.
So I wanted to take on that challenge and also, just as a director, kind of build an atmosphere, an environment, a tone around this character and the other characters, where these type of flawed people would naturally exist.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BAD WORDS")
ROHAN CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) Hi. I'm Chaitanya Chopra.
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Was that English?
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) My name is Chaitanya.
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Oh. Congratulations.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) What's yours?
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) No.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) What's your name?
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Spin it around.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) I'm going to the Golden Quill.
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Good for you.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) My parents are up in first class.
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Great.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) My dad says that economy class builds character.
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) Amazing.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) I was in last year's tournament. I overheard you say you're going, too. You're the grown-up that's competing, huh? I heard about you. What was your winning word?
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) I don't know.
CHAND: (As Chaitanya Chopra) What was the word you spelled to win your regional, to get here?
BATEMAN: (As Guy Trilby) I don't (BLEEP) remember. Do you see my eyes closed?
CORNISH: Now, in the movie, your character - Guy - he gets befriended by a little boy played by Rohan Chand, I think.
BATEMAN: Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: Now, how does your experience as a child actor inform all this? I mean, people might recognize you from like, "Valerie" or "Silver Spoons" or "Little House on the Prairie," when you were really little. I mean, what did that teach you about how to communicate with kids as a director?
BATEMAN: A lot. I was glad that I had that memory to draw upon because the set can be a fairly intimidating place, or it can be a really boring place. It's a lot. And so I would kind of switch off between being his friend and being his director, and being his co-actor. And all of these things, I kind to had to keep pivoting on to try to keep the experience positive for him - because things can go sideways with a 10-year-old pretty quickly.
CORNISH: What director did that for you?
BATEMAN: Actually, on "Little House on the Prairie," when I was 10 or 11, Michael Landon was my co-actor as well as director as well as friend; and he just treated me like an adult when I wanted to be, and treated me like a little kid who needed to be taken care of when I needed to be. And somehow, that stuck. And I knew that I had experienced a draw in there. But I was surprised that I was remembering specific stories from "Little House on the Prairie" that kind of gave me a smile that, you know, I tried to make him feel as happy as I was doing "Little House."
CORNISH: This character, Guy Trilby, he is a little bit different from the kind of man-child we see in a lot of films these days. He's not fully matured somehow, but he isn't immature.
CORNISH: And what were you trying to accomplish with him?
BATEMAN: I didn't have a certain set of written rules about what this guy had sort of been through, and his back story. And I was just nimble about when and where he would be mature or immature. And so oftentimes, it was an arbitrary decision about whether I was going to seem smart or seem dumb, or seem scared or seem vulnerable. And that's the fun of acting, for me, as opposed to deciding exactly how you're going to play each scene the night before, you know, when you're practicing your faces in the mirror, you know, and learning your lines.
CORNISH: Do you guys really do that?
BATEMAN: (Laughter) There are some actors that do.
BATEMAN: And you get on the set with them, and they are not comfortable because you are playing the scene in a different way than they imagined, and it doesn't work with what they've decided they're going to be doing in that scene; and it can hurt the process.
CORNISH: So I read that your dad actually did some directing and for fun, he used to take you to the movies? Is there anything you learned from him about this?
BATEMAN: A lot of what I learned was from my father. He was a writer, director, producer - freelance - his whole life. And so as I was a little boy or, you know, old enough to kind of understand what movies were about, he would take me, as opposed to the park to throw the ball and stuff. And I got a very early interest in what this stuff is. And when I got a chance to become a part of it, I jumped into it full force.
CORNISH: Would you let your kids act?
BATEMAN: No. (Laughter) I wouldn't only because it is a profession that you can't really help yourself in. In most professions, if you stay at the office an extra four hours every day, you're going to impress the boss, you're going to get that promotion, you're going to get that raise, you're going to at least have job security. But with acting, if you're really ambitious and you have a good work ethic and are really good at your job, it might not really matter.
CORNISH: That's crazy to me. You just told me this lovely story about your dad...
BATEMAN: Huge mistake.
CORNISH: And Michael Landon...
BATEMAN: Right. Yeah.
CORNISH: ...like, all of these people. I mean, it worked out for you.
BATEMAN: I've been very, very lucky. Very lucky.
CORNISH: Yeah. Well, thanks so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it.
CORNISH: Jason Bateman, actor and director. His new movie is called "Bad Words."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.